On Phenomenological Philosophy

Husserlian phenomenology has been revived over the last twenty years or so partly through the influence of Franscisco Varela and, even more, Evan Thompson, associated with developments in cognitive science, after having been eclipsed in France by structuralism and poststructuralism and marginalized elsewhere (mainly USA and Germany). Structuralism and poststructuralism were heavily influenced by the Bourbaki mathematicians who promoted a formalism hostile to phenomenology. This revival of phenomenology has been associated with efforts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology, following Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s version of phenomenology. Merleau-Ponty claimed to be following the trajectory of Husserl’s own work (although he was also influenced by Heidegger and Hegel), and although this claim was doubted at the time, publication of Husserl’s late work has provided some justification for this claim. What this development amounts to is a reinvigoration of anti-reductionist cognitive science by relating it to the insights of phenomenology, and a reinvigoration of phenomenology by relating this to work in post-reductionist science. There is now a fair amount of work in this area, including Naturalizing Phenomenology: Issues in Contemporary Phenomenology and Cognitive Science edited by Petitot, Varela, Pachoud and Roy published in 1999, Evan Thompson’s Mind In Life: Biology, Phenomenology and the Sciences of Mind published in 2007, Shaun Gallagher and Dan Zahavi, The Phenomenological Mind: an Introduction to Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Science published in 2007, Handbook of Phenomenology and Cognitive Science edited by Shaun Gallagher and Daniel Schmicking published in 2010 and a journal Phenomenology and Cognitive Science.

While this work provides a starting point, our concern is to take this integration of phenomenology and science further than cognitive science, and for this reason it is necessary to delve more deeply into the resources of phenomenology. This presents further problems. Clearly from our point of view a major problem is grappling with the relationship between mathematics, the physical world, biology and consciousness. Husserl began as a mathematician and corresponded with most of the great mathematicians, philosophers of mathematics and philosophical scientists (such as Hermann Weyl) of his day, and was concerned to deal adequately with mathematics while putting experience at the centre of his philosophy. Given his concern to do justice to human experience, one could expect his work to illuminate this problematic relation. However, Husserl’s philosophy evolved and underwent some major changes of direction, with disciples splintering off in different directions over whether to go along with or reject these changes of direction, and Husserl’s different responses to these responses. Husserl’s early work under the influence of the Aristotelian philosopher Brentano defended a form of Aristotelian realism, but then moved closer to neo-Kantian form of Idealism. Those who rejected the move to Idealism are important for biology because, following Max Scheler, they attempted to develop a philosophical anthropology and then a philosophical biology based on the insights of phenomenology. These include Plessner and Hans Jonas, with Heidegger also involved. The philosophical biologists generally engaged with and embraced the work of Jacob von Uexkull who argued that to understand organisms it is necessary to understand their ‘worlds’. Husserl also moved from a static – descriptive to a genetic approach to comprehending experience. This is not discussed much, but I think this involved moving from a Platonist conception of mathematics not much different from Frege’s view (although with elements of intuitionism in it) to a more constructivist view.

I think the most promising phenomenologists are those who rejected the Idealist turn while embracing the genetic turn, and of these, I think Merleau-Ponty serves as the best guide. Merleau-Ponty was influenced by the philosophical biologists and also contributed to developing a conception of life, as well as a conception of human life, paying particular attention to the embodied nature of consciousness, to the primacy of practical engagement with the world, and the sociality and historicity of human existence. Far more than most phenomenologists he grappled with developments within the sciences, and took these very seriously. He also rejected the foundationalist aspirations of Husserl, and so instead of claiming that phenomenology could arrive at apodictic knowledge of experience that could serve as ultimate knowledge in relation to which all domains of human experience, including science, would have to be interpreted and evaluated, he could hold that there had to be a dialectic between all these. I wrote a paper attempting to continue this dialectic contrasting and bringing in relation to each other philosophical biology and theoretical biology (‘Approaches to the Question “What is Life?”: Reconciling Theoretical Biology with Philosophical Biology’), and will attach this. Merleau-Ponty influenced other phenomenologists who took this in new directions, notably Paul Ricoeur and David Carr who argued for a central place for narrative in understanding the temporality of human existence. Unfortunately, Merleau-Ponty did not engage with mathematics in the way Husserl had, and had little to say on mathematics. This is also true of Ricoeur and Carr.

Merleau-Ponty is an important reference point for another reason. Along with his interest in developments in science, towards the end of his life he began to examine the history of and to develop a more general philosophy of nature. He examined the work of Schelling, Bergson and Whitehead and developments in physics and biology. The lectures he gave on these were only published after his death (translated into English as Nature in 2003), and have been taken seriously only fairly recently. Such attention has been associated with a re-assessment of the background to Husserl’s work. Husserl tended to present his work as a new beginning (although along with aligning himself with Brentano and Frege, he acknowledge the importance of William James to his work and was clearly influenced by Dilthey, Bergson and to some of the neo-Kantians); however it is far better understood as having revived in a new form and then augmented a longer tradition of philosophy. The problematising of the subject, mind and experience by the revival of Pythagoreanism in the work of Descartes and consolidated by Newton resulted in a renewed interest in the subject, and this led to Kant’s Copernican revolution in which the conscious subject rather than physical existence became the reference point for philosophy. This was associated with major advances in comprehending the nature of experience by Kant, his students and those he and these students influenced. Notable among these were Herder and Fichte (students of Kant), Goethe (a disciple of Herder), Schleiermacher (influenced by Herder), Schelling (influenced by Kant, Herder and Fitchte) and Hegel. Most of these were also studying the Ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, and were influenced by them as well as by Kant. Following these early students of Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Dilthey contributed further to elucidating the nature of experience. In USA Peirce and William James (whose radical empiricism influenced Husserl) can be included in this tradition, as can Whitehead whose reflections on experience were quite profound.

Husserlian phenomenology facilitated a recovery and further development of such work, developing a new framework of concepts to elucidate experience. It needed recovering because it had had been suppressed by the direction academic philosophy had taken under the direction of materialists and neo-Kantians. The neo-Kantians were particularly important in this suppression, following Helmholtz’s call to move ‘back to Kant’. What Helmholtz meant by this was a return to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason and a dismissal of the post-Kantians, most importantly Schelling and the proponents of Naturphilosophie who had been inspired by him. Kant argued in the Critique of Pure Reason that there was only as much science in knowledge as there was mathematics and rejected evolutionary theory (despite having put forward a theory of the formation of the solar system from swirling gases before his ‘critical turn’) because it was unintelligible from the perspective of his conception of science. It has been argued that it was Kant who was responsible for the hostility to evolutionary theory before Darwin, not Christianity. Schelling and those following him (including Coleridge) were most influenced by the Critique of Judgment where Kant had discussed teleology and biology and put forward a very original theory of organisms (that you know about) to bridge the gap between the physical world and the conscious subject. Schelling had then argued for a self-organizing universe based on the limitation of activity through balances between opposing forces, with organisms actively maintaining such balance while interacting with their environments, interpreting their environments as worlds to this end. On this basis he argued for an evolutionary cosmology that had generated humans with their consciousness. This idea clearly anticipates the idea of enabling constraints. Schelling also radicalized Kant’s constructivist theory of mathematics and called for not only a new physics to accord with the reality of life, but new forms of mathematics adequate to such a world, although in opposition to Kant he rejected the idea that science could be identified with the application of mathematics. Hermann Grassmann has been shown to have been inspired through his father by Schelling’s ideas on mathematics. Helmholtz’s neo-Kantianism meant rejecting this intellectual movement and cementing in place Newtonian assumptions about the world, assumptions that we are still struggling to overcome.

Those who utilized Husserl to overcome this form of neo-Kantianism did not take Husserl’s claim to be breaking with the past seriously and acknowledged the influence of earlier philosophers. Heidegger reformulated phenomenology as hermeneutic phenomenology (acknowledging Dilthey) and the existentialist phenomenologists, influenced by Heidegger, revived interest in Hegel, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. However, it was Merleau-Ponty who opened the way to a complete recovery of this suppressed tradition and its evolution, a recovery which is still underway.

Once the continuity of this tradition and all those participating in it is understood, then what is taken to be phenomenology, or related to it, can be broadened. The term ‘phenomenology’ originated in the eighteenth century with Lambert. It was used by Hegel and Peirce. Here is a quote from Peirce on his conception of phenomenology:


Peirce: CP 5.37 Cross-Ref:††

  1. But before we can attack any normative science, any science which

proposes to separate the sheep from the goats, it is plain that there must be a

preliminary inquiry which shall justify the attempt to establish such dualism. This

must be a science that does not draw any distinction of good and bad in any sense

whatever, but just contemplates phenomena as they are, simply opens its eyes and

describes what it sees; not what it sees in the real as distinguished from figment — not

regarding any such dichotomy — but simply describing the object, as a phenomenon,

and stating what it finds in all phenomena alike. This is the science which Hegel made

his starting-point, under the name of the Phänomenologie des Geistes — although he

considered it in a fatally narrow spirit, since he restricted himself to what actually

forces itself on the mind and so colored his whole philosophy with the ignoration of

the distinction of essence and existence and so gave it the nominalistic and I might

say in a certain sense the pragmatoidal character in which the worst of the Hegelian

errors have their origin. I will so far follow Hegel as to call this science

Phenomenology although I will not restrict it to the observation and analysis of

experience but extend it to describing all the features that are common to whatever is

experienced or might conceivably be experienced or become an object of study in any way direct or indirect.†1


It is not difficult to see from this the importance phenomenology held for those reacting to a conception of the world blinkered by the assumptions of Newtonian science. It was associated with a refusal to ignore what could not be made intelligible in terms of this science. Goethe, for instance, was quite justified in pointing to aspects of colour perception ignored by Newton, and to the generation and variation of forms in organisms that were incomprehensible in terms of the physics of the day. Similarly, Peirce and Whitehead could point to aspects of life and evolution that could not be made intelligible through Darwinian evolutionary theory, heavily constricted by assumptions about what could count as genuine science. They demanded that a place be given to teleology, a demand embraced by the theoretical biology movement and by the more recent biosemiotics movement.

Both Peirce and Whitehead, even though they were both mathematicians and had enormous respect for mathematics, argued that mathematics could not possibly serve to make fully comprehensible the creativity of the universe.

The naturalization of phenomenology then can be seen to echo Schelling’s naturalization of Kant’s transcendental philosophy and an affirmation of the development of his most radical ideas. Schelling’s work influenced the work of both Peirce and Whitehead, and those they influenced, in all cases attempting to do justice to human experience and then attempting to reform our conception of nature and of science to make this conception of human experience intelligible. There is clearly a parallel between the work of the naturalizing phenomenologists influenced by Merleau-Ponty —both I and Steven M. Rosen, my co-editor for this Special Issue, are examples— and the strategy adopted by Schelling, and following Schelling, the strategy of the scientists influenced by the process metaphysics of Bergson and Whitehead (such as Waddington, Needham, Mae-Wan Ho and Henry Stapp), scientists influenced by Peirce (such as Brian Josephson and the biosemioticians) and scientists influenced by von Bertalanffy (such as Robert Rosen). There are of course differences between these, but also a great deal in common. For this reason it seems plausible that a great deal could be gained by integrating their insights.

— Arran Gare


Some Helpful References

Steven M. Rosen, 2013. Bridging the “Two Cultures”: Merleau-Ponty and the Crisis in Modern PhysicsCosmos and History, 2013, 9 (2), 1-12.

Arran Gare, 2013. From Kant to Schelling – The Subject, the Object and Life. In: Objectivity after Kant: Its Meaning, its Limitations, its Fateful Omissions, Ed. Gertrudis van d Vijver and Boris Demarest, Hildersheim: George Olms Verlag. 129-140.

Arran Gare, 2013. Overcoming the Newtonian Paradigm in BiologyProgress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Vol. 113, Issue 1 (Sept. 2013). Special Theme Issue on Integral Biomathics: Can Biology Create a Profoundly New Mathematics and Computation? Elsevier. ISSN: 0079-6107. DOI: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2013.06.001. 5-24.

Plamen L. Simeonov et al., 2013. On Some Recent Insights in Integral BiomathicsProgress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. Vol. 113, Issue 1 (Sept. 2013). Special Theme Issue on Integral Biomathics: Can Biology Create a Profoundly New Mathematics and Computation? Elsevier. ISSN: 0079-6107. DOI: 10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2013.06.001. 216-228.

Plamen L. Simeonov et. al., 2012Stepping Beyond the Newtonian Paradigm in Biology – INBIOSA White PaperIn: Integral Biomathics: Tracing the Road to Reality, Proc. of iBioMath 2011, Paris and ACIB ’11, Stirling UK, P. L. Simeonov, L. S. Smith, A. C. Ehresmann (Eds.), Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, ISBN-10: 3642281109; ISBN-13: 978-3642281105.

Plamen L. Simeonov, 2010Integral Biomathics – A Post-Newtonian View into the Logos of BiosProgress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, Elsevier, ISSN: 0079-6107, Vol. 102, Issues 2/3, June/July 2010, 85-121. Available online: 8 February 2010. DOI:10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2010.01.005. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pbiomolbio.2010.01.005. http://arxiv.org/abs/cs/0703002 (2007-2010).

Steven M. Rosen, 2008Quantum Gravity and Phenomenological PhilosophyFoundations of Physics, 2008, 38 (6), 556–82. Springer-Verlag. The article is based on Steven M. Rosen’s 2008 book, The Self-Evolving Cosmos, Series on Knots and Everything, (Ed. Louis H. Kauffman), Vol. 18. World Scientific Publishing Company. ISBN-10: 9812771735; ISBN-13: 978-9812771735.